No longer in photos, still in the heart

The Miami Herald

December 7, 2005

By Ana Mendez

The changes roiling Miami have left behind few disinterested parties: For every dissident of the new there stands an ecstatic prophet of progress.

Xavier Cortada’s vision subscribes to neither extreme, preferring to mark time’s changes with the bemused detachment of a doting parent. And in a weekend marked by visual extravagance, Cortada’s installation at Omni Art stood out as much for its humanity as for its simplicity.

Absence of Place,” which ended Sunday, explored the connection between time and memory by juxtaposing photos of the new with captions of what used to be. The photographs, displayed in plastic bags like evidence, documented both communal memories of Miami and the artist’s personal recollections.

Written beneath a photograph of the Walgreens that now inhabits a former tire store: ”FIRESTONE.” Beneath a shot of an Office Depot: “I first drank Vietnamese coffee at this restaurant on Coral Way and 27th Avenue.”

WHAT’S NOT THERE

Taken as a whole, the installation was a monument to absence: There were photographs of missing graffiti, vanished restaurants and empty lots where buildings used to be. ”Lydia was my junior high prom date to this hotel” reads the caption beneath the skeleton of a budding building.

The photographs were printed on cardstock and aged to look like vintage postcards. And one of the installation’s strengths came from the play of image and context: At first glance, it was easy to believe that the Office Depot had stood on that Coral Way corner for decades.

It’s just the sort of sly glance at history (and its poor country cousin, nostalgia) that ran through the entire project. It was impossible not to note that the 180 photographs covered an entire wall of a downtown warehouse that is itself destined to make way for the new.

But ”Absence of Place” engaged without preaching, a refreshing reminder that there is life beyond blunt opinion, and that it is art that takes us there.

”I’m not sitting here lamenting what there was,” Cortada said Monday as he prepared to take down the exhibit. “It would be arrogant to think that a building of my childhood is any more important than a building of someone else’s childhood. . . . I look at this wall as naturally as I see death.”

In the era of blockbuster exhibits that draw huge corporate sponsorship — The Herald’s support of the King Tut exhibit a case in point — it is worth seeking out that art that transcends the practical. To remember that the best art — whether a painting or a historic building — is unconcerned with questions of profit or “usefulness.”

In rejecting an easy point of view, ”Absence of Place” makes a larger one about the value of process over destination and dialogue over certainty.

`JUST THINK’

Art Basel brought a lot of frivolity and commercialism to Miami, but it also opened a space for the imagination. And cities no less than people cannot survive without an ability to re-imagine themselves.

”Don’t applaud, just think,” gallery owner Bernice Steinbaum admonished a crowd gathered for a performance Thursday night.

In his own way, Cortada was saying the same thing. ”Absence of Place” was as much about memory as about the way time moves through us. A companion exhibit revisited a favorite Cortada image, the mangrove seedling. The white silhouette was entombed in concrete and surrounded by actual seedlings — an echo of the ecosystem Miami replaced.

But mourning would be premature. Among Cortada’s photographs was one of Bear Cut in Key Biscayne. Australian pines once choked the beach. Then Hurricane Andrew came through and wiped out the trees and the pine needle floor that, for Cortada, so evoked the time of his adolescence. Today, the photograph documents a more ancient memory: an open beach blanketed with mangrove.